The Machiavellian Approach: British Divide and Rule in Colonial India

British Council Library Pune
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New Delhi, 7th September 2023: The “divide and rule” policy, also known as “divide and conquer,” was a strategy employed by the British colonial administration in various parts of their empire, including India. The goal of this policy was to maintain control over a diverse and often restive population by creating divisions and conflicts among different groups, thereby weakening any unified opposition to British rule. 

Here are some of the ways the British implemented this policy:

  1. Religious and Cultural Divisions: One of the most significant divisions the British exploited was religious and cultural differences. In India, for example, they capitalized on the existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims. The British would sometimes favor one group over the other in terms of employment opportunities, administrative positions, or land distribution, leading to resentment and conflict.
  2. Communal Electorates: The British introduced the concept of communal electorates, where different religious communities were given separate representation in legislative bodies. This further accentuated religious divisions, as political leaders began to primarily represent the interests of their own religious groups.
  3. Regional Divisions: The British also exploited regional differences and rivalries. They established separate provinces and administrative units with different laws and regulations, making it difficult for any unified nationalistic movement to emerge. This policy was evident in India, where they had separate administrative units for provinces like Bengal, Punjab, and Madras.
  4. Tribal and Caste Divisions: The British often relied on tribal and caste divisions to maintain control in areas with diverse populations. They recognized and sometimes even exacerbated caste hierarchies, using intermediaries from dominant castes to administer local areas.
  5. Creation of Princely States: In India, the British maintained indirect control over several princely states, each with its own ruler. By playing off these states against each other and occasionally interfering in their internal affairs, the British ensured that no single entity posed a significant challenge to their authority.
  6. Economic Exploitation: The British also exploited economic divisions by favoring certain industries or regions over others. This could lead to economic disparities and competition among different groups.
  7. Language Policies: The imposition of English as the official language of administration and education also contributed to divisions. English-speaking elites were often favored, creating a linguistic divide within the population.

By implementing these strategies, the British colonial administration aimed to create internal strife and prevent the emergence of a united, nationalist movement that could challenge their rule. This policy of divide and rule was instrumental in prolonging British colonial control in various parts of their empire for an extended period. However, it also sowed the seeds of communal and regional tensions that persisted even after independence and contributed to later conflicts in many post-colonial nations.